Today, if you didn’t miss it, is the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I always take this time to think about women’s rights – how far we have come in just a few generations, and what we owe to those who came before us, and to those who come after.
The story of women’s suffrage is one of relentless determination. We take it for granted nowadays, but the 19th Amendment was the culmination of over 70 years of work, from the first convention on women’s rights in 1848 to ratification in 1920. What we view today as a no-brainer was really a hard-fought battle, by no means a foregone conclusion. The 19th Amendment was passed by just one vote in the Tennessee legislature, that of Harry Burns, a freshman legislator, 24 years old. Ratification had stalled one state short, three of the four states had refused to call special sessions on the amendment, and the only state that was left to vote on the amendment was Tennessee.
The state Senate passed ratification, 25-4. But the House was much more difficult, and when the day came, the first vote – to table the amendment (thus killing it) was tied, 48-48. It failed. The speaker of the house, who was against the amendment, knew that a tied vote would kill the amendment, so he pressed ahead for an immediate vote. Then, Harry Burns, who had appeared with an anti-suffrage red rose in his lapel, changed his vote to “yes”. Against all odds, the 19th Amendment had passed, and American women had won the right to vote.
Why did Burns change his vote? He said that he had initially hoped to defer the question, as he represented an anti-suffrage constituency, but that he personally believed in women’s suffrage. His statement to the Legislature the following day read, in part,
I want to state that I changed my vote in favor of ratification first because I believe in full suffrage as a right; second, I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify; third, I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification; fourth, I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free seventeen million women from political slavery was mine; fifth, I desired that my party in both State and nation might say that it was a republican from the East mountains of Tennessee, the purest Anglo-Saxon section in the world, who made national woman suffrage possible at this date, not for personal glory but for the glory of his party.
So thank you, Harry Burns, and thank you, Susan B. Anthony and all the suffragists who worked tirelessly for 70 years to win women the right to vote.
(It is said that Susan B. Anthony, when asked about the afterlife by a “cub” reporter, snapped, “Young man, when I die I will go neither to heaven nor hell. I will stay here and finish the women’s revolution.” I like to think she is still watching over us, and happy at seeing the fruits of her labors.)
I’m also pleased at how the world is changing. When I was a girl, there was still a widespread perception that boys were naturally superior to girls at math, largely because of a single (very flawed) study where the authors speculated that they couldn’t account for any other reasons for the difference between girls and boys in genius-level mathematical talent, so it might be genetic. For a young woman going into mathematics, this was a huge handicap. Men outnumbered women drastically in the top echelons of mathematics. Being a woman in mathematics was an oddity. My freshman year at Stanford, when I took the Putnam exam, the most prestigious American mathematics competition, I was the lone woman amongst 30 participants. I scored in the top 300 nationwide, not a bad score, but I wanted so badly to score amongst the Putnam “winners” (the top 50, 100% male that year) for the sake of my sex that I was quite disappointed. (To end the suspense, I topped out at 83rd in the country, not quite good enough to be a Putnam winner but not too shabby either. I made the Caltech Putnam team my senior year, the third highest scorer at Caltech, and we won an honorable mention (top 10 in the country) that year. If you look at the Mathematical Association of America’s bulletins for 1991, you will see my name listed on the Caltech team, for mathematical excellence. I’m still very proud of that – not many women of my era could say that.)
At any rate, I – and the other top women in mathematics – knew we were fighting to prove that women could do math. It was a horrible burden, and eventually one of the reasons I got out of mathematics – I was tired of being a dancing bear.
Fast forward 20 years. We’ve made significant progress. Women now make up about 30% of doctorates in mathematics – still a small number, but nearly double what it was when I was in school. The U.S. Math Olympiad team (the top 6 in the country) has had its first female member. It’s not perfect, but it’s progress.
Progress in other fronts, too. I have a degree that my mother could not have gotten. Caltech did not admit women until 1971 (the year after I was born!). And when I was at Caltech, women made up just 13% of Caltech students (which made life miserable for all involved). Today the figure is 39% – nearly equal! There is still a long way to go (women make up just 10% of Caltech’s tenured faculty – double the percentage of 20 years ago, but still pretty darn miserable), but the trend is clear. And in business, women have gone from pounding at the door for admission, to pounding on the door of CEO.
I’m not suggesting in any way that things are perfect (any woman in software engineering knows what I mean); but we’ve made astonishing progress from 1920, when women were still regarded as chattel, to today. And women continue to make progress, as the girls of today pour through the doors forced open by the women who came before.
So I am pleased, and grateful. Today I am proud to be part of the legacy of Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes, and grateful for the work of all the women who labored to give me the rights and opportunities I have today.
So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Susan B. I hope you’re still watching over us, and that you’re happy with what you’re seeing.